The effects of New York City’s recent school food budget cuts are already rippling through city cafeterias and beyond, even threatening jobs at the manufacturer of the chicken dumplings pulled from February’s menu.

A $60 million November cut to the Education Department’s school foods division forced the agency to chop a number of popular items, including cookies, bean and cheese burritos, and roasted chicken, Chalkbeat first reported last month. Middle and high schools with cafeterias that resemble food courts lost chicken tenders, French fries, burritos, and grab-and-go salads – items that were previously available on most days.

New York City’s school system runs the largest daily food program in the country outside the military. It serves approximately 880,000 daily “free, nutritious, and delicious meals,” according to Education Department spokesperson Jenna Lyle, who downplayed the impact of the menu changes. She said the agency “will continue to work to prioritize student choice wherever possible.”

But the cuts were felt immediately by many students.

Alec Lopez, a 17-year-old senior at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters in the South Bronx, went to the cafeteria last week to grab the chicken tenders and French fries she usually takes only to discover that they weren’t available.

“I didn’t eat anything. I was like, ‘Ooh maybe I should get a salad,’ but they cut that out too,” she said. “For the rest of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, energy levels are so down and it makes everyone feel like crap.”

A black plastic container with a see-through lid has seven veggie nuggets.
A container with veggie nuggets at Bronx Academy of Letters on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024 in Bronx, New York. (Image courtesy of David Garcia-Rosen)

Previously full display cases sat empty, and the slim offerings on shelves contained meager portions, said David Garcia-Rosen, the dean at Bronx Letters.

“I’ve never seen that all school year,” he said, adding that some of the containers held what appeared to be just a handful of veggie nuggets.

At Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Hell’s Kitchen, the recent menu cuts exacerbated long-standing issues with broken cafeteria equipment and food shortages. Parents and school officials have tried in vain for years to get busted display cases fixed, said Diane Tinsley, a parent of a senior and Parent Association president at Urban Assembly Gateway.

On a recent Friday afternoon, multiple broken display cases sat empty and unstocked, while only one was filled with hot food for a building with five schools and more than 2,000 students.

“I come in and it just looks like a desert,” Tinsley said. “This is child abuse.”

Food manufacturers feeling pain, too

The effects of the cuts are also spreading beyond school cafeterias. The city’s decision to yank major menu items midyear sent shockwaves through food manufacturers.

“We’re all just kind of frustrated and befuddled,” said Kirk Jaudes, chief operating officer of International Food Solutions, the company that produces the chicken dumplings for city schools. The company first found out about the change when a staffer noticed that the dumplings were missing from the Education Department’s February menu, he added. An Education Department spokesperson said vendors were notified on Dec. 19 and Dec. 22 of the changes.

International Food Solutions produces the dumplings exclusively for the city Education Department from a factory in Long Island that can churn out somewhere in the ballpark of 2 million servings a month, at a cost of around $1 a serving, Jaudes estimated.

But the Education Department’s abrupt decision to pull the plug is upending the company’s operations, Jaudes said, taking a bite out of revenue, slowing production, and forcing the company to consider layoffs.

“You could potentially have students in the New York City Department of Education whose parents are going to lose their jobs,” he said. The company, moreover, is still stuck with about $350,000 in leftover inventory that it can’t sell anywhere else because the product is reserved exclusively for New York City schools. Company officials are trying to work out a deal to distribute it in city schools, but said they haven’t gotten anywhere.

“Unless there’s major policy changes, we won’t be doing business with New York City” any more, Jaudes said. “We can’t take that risk.”

An Education Department spokesperson noted that the agency asked all vendors whose items were removed from the February menu for a “voluntary price reduction,” and that International Food Solutions declined. But Jaudes said his company had already agreed to the price suggested by the Education Department before this school year, and had even offered an additional discount, also before the start of the school year, on top of that.

“We didn’t have any margin to provide further cost reductions,” he said. The Education Department spokesperson said nine vendors offered price reductions, which are currently being reviewed by city officials to see if any items can be added back to the menu.

The dumplings are, by many accounts, one of the most popular items served in schools.

At one Manhattan elementary school, 31 out of 46 fourth- and fifth- grade students surveyed last week by the school’s principal said dumplings were the best lunch meal, the administrator said.

And in a recent Reddit thread about the school menu cuts, the top comment reads, in part: “I work in the schools. The dumplings are popular and most kids eat them.”

Reasons for budget cut raise questions

The circumstances surrounding the school food budget cut are still somewhat murky. The $60 million cut to school foods was part of a larger $550 million budgetary blow to the Education Department that Mayor Eric Adams said was prompted by increased spending on the wave of migrants who have arrived in the city over the past year-and-a-half.

But budget documents appear to suggest that the cut to school foods from the city’s budget was going to be offset by federal food revenues that “exceed budgeted amount.” Administration officials told the City Council that the cut to city school food funds wouldn’t affect the division’s overall operating budget because it would be offset by federal money, according to a council source.

“It’s mystifying why schools are seeing these removals of menu items,” the council source added.

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed that the city is indeed replacing the missing city money with federal funds, and said the overall $580 million budget for school foods is still higher than what the city spent last year. Costs are up this year because of increased participation compared to last year and increases in unspecified “other areas,” according to the spokesperson. Labor contracts prevent the Education Department from laying off workers, “which meant a reduction in food options,” the spokesperson added.

Some observers worry that the cuts could have long-term implications for the city’s school food program.

The number of city students eating lunch on an average day, while higher than last year, is still down significantly from the 2019-20 school year, according to city data.

If even fewer students eat lunch because of the menu changes, that could lead to lower reimbursement from the federal government, which in turn can lead to cuts that further diminish the quality of the food, in what Jaudes called “a never-ending cycle to the bottom.”

The Education Department spokesperson said, “The current menu still provided high demand items, a decrease in meal participation is not expected.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at